Research shows that we tend to expect more from our toddler’s ability - sometimes up to two years earlier than brain science indicates is possible.
As your toddler has a meltdown in the middle of the dairy aisle because she wanted the strawberry yoghurt with Elsa from Frozen on it, rather than the one with the picture of the strawberry, you can be completely forgiven for wanting to yell at her. You stand embarrassed and exasperated, particularly as she completely refused said yoghurt last week. And even more so, 15 minutes later, as she gleefully spoons the offending yoghurt into her mouth. At this point you shake your head and think, “She is only two and a half, are you expecting too much from her?”
The expectation gap
The good news is that you are not alone. Research conducted by American early child education centre, Zero to Three has found that the majority of parents overestimate young children’s ability for self-control – sometime as much as one to two years earlier than brain science indicates is even possible. This discrepancy has been labelled the “expectation gap”.
Matthew Melmed, executive director of Zero to Three, explains that during the first 1 000 days of life (around two and half years of age), more than a million neural connections are formed in your baby’s brain every second. “The way adult caregivers—parents in particular—interact and connect with children during the early years can actually shape babies’ brain architecture for life.”
He adds: “Having realistic expectations for your child’s ability is critical for supporting healthy development and minimising stress for both parents and that child.” He says that for example, if a parent thinks a child is capable of greater self-control than she actually is, it can lead to frustration for the parent and possibly more disciplinary – rather than supportive – responses.
Melmed warns that the early years are about teaching, rather than punishing. “When parents have realistic expectations about their child’s capabilities, they can guide behavior in very sensitive and effective ways.”
The centre conducted a national parent survey that revealed:
- 56% of parents believe children have the impulse control to resist the desire to do something forbidden before age three, and 36% believe that children under the age of two have this kind of self-control. “However, brain research shows that these skills start developing between three and a half and four years, and take many more years to be used consistently,” says Melmed.
- 43% of parents think children can share and take turns with other children before age two. This skill, says Melmed, only develops between three to four years.
- 24% of all parents believe that children are able to control their emotions, such as not having a tantrum when frustrated, at one year or younger, while 42% believe children have this ability by two years. Again, research shows this type of self-control is also just starting to develop between three and a half and four years.
What about you?
The study also found that parents need to look at their own impulse control when dealing with these temper tantrums. “Parent’s ability to manage their own emotions in order to help children learn self-control also surfaced as an important issue in our research,” says Melmed.
According to the study:
- 60% of parents said that having patience is among the top three improvements they would like to make as parents;
- 47% said that they want to better control their emotions and reactions;
- 42% said they don’t want to yell or raise their voices as quickly; and
- 35% of parents said they don’t want to lose their temper as fast.
Melmed adds that children who experience positive and nurturing connections have more secure and healthy relationships. “They are also more likely to do well academically and socially in adulthood than children who experience insensitive or harsh caregiving. Our research provides a clear and in-depth understanding about the challenges that parents face, the help they seek and how satisfied they are with the support and information they receive.”
As hard as it is, sometimes, adults have to well, adult. Before reacting, take a step back, a deep breath and try to see it from your toddler’s perspective. A little patience goes a long way to diffusing the situation and you will all feel better for it.
Kim Bell is a wife, mother of two teenagers and a lover of research and the way words flow and meld together. She has been in the media industry for over 20 years, and yet still learns more about life from her children everyday. You can learn more about Kim Bell here.